The GPS industry is expected to grow to a $70 billion industry worldwide by 2013. This industry has spawned dozens of companies and creates thousands of jobs producing products that make everyone’s life easier. What many people may not realize is that GPS was developed by the U.S. government specifically for helping the military navigate and later was embedded in many weapons systems for precision munitions delivery. I worked on it personally at GE Astro Space where we designed the GPS IIR spacecraft in the 1980s.
GPS is an example of how the government created a very successful and vibrant industry. Even today the GPS constellation is entirely government financed. The satellites continue to be designed, built, and launched under government contracts. These contracts provide jobs for hundreds of engineers in the defense industry and contribute to the vibrant commercial GPS industry. Of course, these contracts are paid for by taxes paid by every American.
GPS is not an anomaly. Virtually every major high technology industry was founded on government research and development. Take, for example, the communications satellite industry. Nearly 30 geosynchronous communications satellites are launched each year. The U.S. government in the 1960s developed satellite technology. The rockets that launched them were developed for military purposes under government contracts.
Commercial communications satellites were developed with private funds but this was done at firms that had substantial government contracts. For example, RCA Astro-Electronics had the Air Force DMSP and NASA TIROS meteorological satellite contracts when they first developed their Series 3000 communications satellites. The government contracts allowed them to develop the expertise needed to help create a new industry.
Another example is the commercial jet aircraft industry. The Boeing 707 was developed for both civilian and military use. The first customer was the United States Air Force using it as an airborne tanker. The jet engines in all commercial jets were first developed for military applications. MIT’s Draper Laboratory for the Apollo program pioneered digital control systems, which are now in every device from aircraft to dishwashers.
Radar was developed at MIT for the military during WWII. Radar is an essential element of air traffic control and now is finding its way into many more vehicles, including automobiles.
Solar cells were developed for satellites. Satellites remained virtually the only market until recently. Now solar cells are making a significant contribution to terrestrial energy production. Hundreds of companies manufacture and install solar cell power systems. Wind turbines were developed with government funding. While the initial turbines were not commercially successful, the vast store of knowledge developed under government contracts is in use by wind turbine designers today.
The C and C++ computer languages were developed at the Bell Laboratories (part of the Bell System, a government-allowed monopoly), as was the UNIX operating system. Variants of these were developed at universities with government support. C/C++ and UNIX form the underpinnings of many modern computer systems and software.
The transistor, which is the basis for all electronics, was also developed at the Bell Labs in the days when pure research was feasible due to, in effect, a tax on every phone call.
One is hard pressed to find any significant new technology that was not developed initially with government support. Private companies are very good at taking established technology and producing new products. It is unlikely that a government contract would have produced the iPhone. However, the iPhone would not exist were it not for government-developed technology and government-supported education of engineers and scientists.
The process that has worked for the past century has been for the government to pioneer new technology through research in its own laboratories and in the universities. This provides the basis for new industries and creates an educated workforce to further develop new technologies. The technology becomes available for use by private industry, but in many cases the government maintains a regulatory framework for the use of the technology. This necessarily requires taxes to support both the technology development and regulation. Some industries require little regulation, like GPS, but some require substantial regulation, such as the commercial aviation industry.
The four elements required for a solid and successful core to produce new technologies are education of new engineers, research in the universities, a large core of researchers in government laboratories, and consistent funding of private industry.
Today there is a great amount of effort being spent to encourage students to become scientists and engineers. However, it is absurd to lament the lack of American children interested in careers in science and engineering if the nation does not provide the underpinnings for future technology. Encouraging children to become engineers is part of the equation, but there must be the prospect of long-term employment for anyone to rationally choose a technology career.
University research is where the really long-term ideas are studied and where the faculty who train the students are themselves trained. Without a strong university research program engineering and science education can easily become trailing edge.
It is important to maintain a strong core of engineers and scientists working for the government who can look at projects over periods of decades. These people need to do research, not just manage private contractors. Support to research in the universities must be expanded. Contracts to private industry, to get ideas into prototype products, are also essential.
It is important, however, that contracts integrate researchers in government with those in private industry so that they work together as team members. I’ve worked on many government projects that were managed like this (for example GPS IIR) and they were always successful. It would also be helpful if industry contracts were longer term so that the contractors, and their government team members, were not constantly forced to change direction with the yearly government budget cycle.
It is also important to insulate technology development from booms and busts. The aerospace industry layoffs in the early 1970s were a disaster. A whole generation of engineers lost their jobs to the detriment of future aerospace projects. This does not mean that every government-funded project should be allowed to continue forever. It means that when one effort ends there should be others to absorb the engineers and scientists.
The current administration understands the need for government-funded research and development. Examples are government investments in battery technology, energy generation, health, and space and fundamental research in virtually every field in science.
Other nations, such as China, have adopted our system with great success. Unfortunately, many Americans, including many elected officials and many in the media, do not understand how successful this system has been or refuse to acknowledge its achievements for ideological reasons. As a consequence, this very successful system is under attack by people who claim that private industry would be better off on its own.
This is false and a recipe for disaster. It would lead to America becoming dependent on foreign technology developed in countries that have adopted our system as their own. It is bad that most manufacturing jobs have been moved overseas. It will be far worse if all the research and development is done overseas too.
–Michael Paluszek is the president and founder of Princeton Satellite Systems, a Plainsboro-based software and directional systems developer (U.S. 1, August 12, 2009). Paluszek says thet Princeton Satellite gets about 80 percent of its revenues through government contracts and is developing several space and deep-sea navigation software programs and a mobile wind turbine project that it hopes will find commercial applications now that it has sufficiently intrigued the U.S. Army.